While Mario Kennedy, 62, talks about riding the Tour of the Scioto River Valley (TOSRV) for the 46th year in a row, one somewhat unexpected phrase keeps popping up.
“La familia” is how Kennedy responds to a question on why he has made the bicycle ride so many times, and plans to continue to do so “until I can’t.”
For those who might not know, TOSRV sees bicycle riders cruise from Columbus to Portsmouth, stay overnight in Portsmouth and ride back to the capital city the next day.
In 1972, the first year he took that bike ride, Kennedy, then as now, lived near Detroit, Mich., some 290 miles north of Portsmouth. Nevertheless, a decision to take a bike ride with a couple of buddies resulted in him creating some essentially lifelong friendships with a family in Portsmouth, one of many families who agreed to house a cyclist for the overnight stay in town.
In ’72, the bike tour, which attracted about 800 riders this year, drew thousands to the state capital building in Columbus for a humongous group start. Kennedy lost his friends in the crowd and never saw them again during the tour, which now runs 105 miles in both directions. The first year, Kennedy, and presumably his buddies, were a bit unprepared. Kennedy arrived in Portsmouth with nowhere to stay and no sleeping bag or other equipment. He said he was finally directed to what was then the local YMCA. He had dinner courtesy of a Portsmouth Catholic school. “They fed thousands,” Kennedy recalls.
Back at the YMCA, Kennedy said he happily took a shower.
“I slept out in the lobby on a wet towel,” he continued.
Kennedy eventually made it back to Detroit in one piece, but his report of his experience must have worried his father a bit. When the son wanted to do the tour again the following year, Dad insisted on going with him. His father never came back again, but apparently was satisfied his son was safe on the ride. “After he did it, he was good,” Kennedy said.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, TOSRV continued to draw thousands of riders, according to various accounts. Kennedy said tour planners would cut off entries at a certain number, but more always showed up. The tour saw so many people on the roads, the National Guard would monitor the route. In the days before cell phones, HAM radio operators from Portsmouth helped keep people in contact with the outside world while on the tour. A caravan of trucks carried the equipment of riders – sleeping bags and such – from Columbus to Portsmouth.
Once in Portsmouth, riders camped out in various places, such as Portsmouth High School as well as local churches, though Kennedy argued the high school was the best place to stay. He slept there for about 10 years until 1982. At that point, organizers, worried about running out of room for everyone, began looking for volunteers interested in allowing cyclists to stay overnight at their homes. That was when Kennedy met the “familia” he continues to see annually. By pure coincidence, that was also the year of the worst ride he’s ever had with TOSRV, Kennedy said.
Apparently, 1982 featured a torrential downpour just in time for the annual tour. Kennedy arrived soaking wet in Chillicothe on the way back to Columbus, minus any rain gear. He walked into a café packed with wet cyclists. One man decided to give up on the ride and had a family member coming down to pick him up in a car. Kennedy overheard and immediately offered to buy the man’s rain gear, but was handed it free.
Kennedy has all kinds of stories regarding the family of Grace B. Martin, who today heads up the Scioto County Medical Society. An engineer, Kennedy once volunteered to fix a sliding door at Martin’s house. After that, he said, he often had some chore or another – which he never complained about – to do during his stay. Kennedy eventually became friends with Martin’s entire family, even talking about helping to teach her grandson to ride a bike.
In 2003, Kennedy’s “familia” grew a bit when the woman who would become his wife began riding the tour with him. Amy Kennedy still rides the tour every year, including this one, on a tandem bike with her husband.
Mario Kennedy can’t really explain why the tour has dropped so much in popularity. He said about 40 members of what’s called the Wolverine Sports Club used to make the trip from Michigan every year. He and his wife are the last pair who still do.
These days, TOSRV is organized by Columbus Outdoor Pursuits. TOSRV organizer Lisa Davis didn’t want to talk about any falling numbers. She said organizers made numerous changes to attract additional and younger riders, responding to rider comments and moving it from its traditional time slot on Mothers Day weekend. But probably the biggest change was moving the gang start from downtown Columbus to the city of Canal Winchester just south of Columbus. Davis believes the change made things easier on riders who don’t have to deal with, for example, finding a hotel in Columbus prior to the event.
For his part, Kennedy said he loved that change. “This was absolutely the best route,” he added.
Davis also talked about bringing on board a major sponsor, Brew Dog Brewery in Columbus. TOSRV riders were invited to an after-party at the brewery following completion of the tour. She further talked about riders who had completed 50 or more tours receiving platinum-colored placards to wear during the tour. Everyone who completes the tour receives a certificate, which are apparently prized by riders. Columbus Pursuits still provides trucks to bring equipment to Portsmouth. The group used five luggage trucks this year. Cell phones or not, Davis added HAM radio operators still help with the race.
“It’s a very organized, fully supported tour,” she said. One incidental highlight of this year’s ride was a couple getting engaged at the roughly halfway point of the tour in Chillicothe.
“It was a really positive year for us,” Davis concluded.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931